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June 18, 2004

When Separation of Powers No Longer Means Balance of Power

And why is it so important to have groups in government who aren't most observable in their amity? Well, here's one reason:

In the closing rush of this year's legislative session, Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank Williams is seeking to boost his power by trying to cut out the governor from decisions about the judiciary's annual budget request. He calls this a "separation-of-powers" issue -- that the judiciary should be able to do what it wants without the governor having a say.

The unelected, office-for-life judiciary wants to slap away the hands of one of the branches of government — the most individually visible office — from its purse strings.

He wants his request for money to go straight to the General Assembly, without the filter of the governor. So a chief justice would have much more power to cut deals with legislative leaders. Some 28 percent of House members are lawyers, and many of them argue in front of state courts regularly. They could conceivably get a better deal for their clients if they funded the judiciary to a chief justice's specifications.

Moreover, he or she would apparently set the salaries of judges, conceivably using that authority to reward and punish, without any check on that power, since state judicial appointments are for life.

As the Providence Journal editorial notes, this fall, Rhode Islanders will have the opportunity to vote for a popular amendment to increase the amount of weight the governor has in the balance of power. These last-minute grabs would not, presumably, sit well with the voters, and if more — and more vocal — representatives of the governor's party were in place to be presented with the hasty proposal, an editorial would not have to be the news breaker.

I'd say "unbelievable," but it's really not surprising that there's more:

Some last-minute changes sprung on the public with little debate would put financial control of the public colleges directly in the hands of the General Assembly. A member of the Board of Governors for Higher Education since 1997, Michael Ryan, called the proposal "the most troubling document I've seen." Jack Warner, commissioner of higher education, said the change would undermine a "bedrock principle of education" and erode protections against its being "politicized."

One wonders what's slipping through...

Posted by Justin Katz at June 18, 2004 1:20 PM

When I lived in Massachusetts, that august body in it's yearly frenzy of budgeting for the next year would put just about anything in the bill. I remember that one year, an unamed republican, put in a request for money for a town that did not exist. Now I realize there are 351 towns in the great commonwealth, but you'd think one of the members of that great deliberative body would realize something was not kosher.

Alas they did not. Well not until the person who submitted the amendment pulled it lest the imaginary town actually get it's money.

So I can truly only imagine what slips thru the budget process down here in wonderful little rhody.

Posted by: Paul at June 20, 2004 6:46 PM


Sadly, not surprising. I'm a little less concerned about money, however, than about the actual changes to government processes being tagged onto this budget — particularly in light of probable balance-of-power changes after the next ballot. And more than any of it, I'm concerned about the aversion my neighbors apparently have to learning that problems exist. It's as if their hands begin to shake when they consider checking a box next to the name of somebody who isn't a Democrat.

What this state needs (ahem) is more bloggers! (And especially more blog readers.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 21, 2004 10:41 AM